Wednesday, July 11, 2007

More on Obama and his speech to the NEA

Obama's speech to the NEA last week has rightly been scrutinized and triggered an editorial in the WSJ on Monday and an Op Ed by Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post today (both below).
1) Regarding the WSJ editorial, it blasted Obama, in some ways fairly -- his speech, like every other Democrat's, lacked real courage -- but in some ways not.  For example, this is just wrong: "It's remarkable, though, how cynical his candidacy for the Democratic Presidential nomination has already become."  It's true that he was not bold in his call for education reform when speaking to the NEA, but how's that cynical?
I think the word they're looking for is hypocrite.  I can certainly see how someone could argue that Obama (so far anyway) has been a hypocrite because, as Marcus notes, he:
sneers at "slogans without substance," as he told the delegates, and presents himself as being above tired ideological divides.
Yet, the WSJ would argue that he's not been particularly bold on any issue and has not taken on a single entrenched interest within the Democratic Party
I think it's premature to conclude that Obama's a hypocrite and no different from the other Democrats (at least I hope so -- while I'm a committed Democrat, I think my party is wrong on plenty of issues, most notably education reform, and I'm not interested in supporting any Democrat who toes the party line on everything), but at least this would be a critique that reasonable people could debateBut cynical?  I doubt there's a cynical bone in Obama's body.  In fact, I'd argue that the WSJ editorial page is a lot more cynical than Obama, so they've got some real chutzpah.
Also, I don't know what they're talking about here: "Bill Clinton would have attacked this in 1992 as Old Democratic thinking."  I'm not aware that Clinton did much of anything on education reform in 1992 (or any other time), though I did hear that he was an early champion of charter schools (if someone can fill me in whether this was just empty rhetoric or whether he deserves real credit for the rise of the charter school movement, I'd appreciate it).  Clinton deserves enormous credit for moving enough Democrats to get welfare reform passed, but sadly he didn't do the same for education reform.
As I noted in a recent email:
Someday, I have to believe, some Democrat will come to the same realization that Bill Clinton did on welfare reform when he was an obscure Arkansas governor running 5th in the presidential primary polls: that taking on the entrenched status quo that owns the Democratic Party is not only morally right but politically brilliant -- and, like Clinton, ride the issue into the White House.
I'm not holding my breath for it to happen this Presidential cycle -- unless Bloomberg runs -- but it will happen!
As for the general thrust of the WSJ editorial -- that Obama pretty much toed the NEA line -- it's hard to argue with that.  The only even slightly bold thing he said was about merit pay, but as the editorial points out, he quickly watered it down by saying the teachers union can develop the merit pay system and Obama also attacked testing as a way to determine merit.  It's hard to imagine such a system being worth bupkis ["chutzpah" and "bupkis" in the same email -- I'm really trying to build cred with my Jewish brothers and sisters! ;-)  By the way, I had to look up bupkis to be sure of the spelling and learned that it literally means "goat shit" in Yiddish!  LOL!].

Merit pay was a minor item in an overflowing gift basket to the teachers unions, and besides, was presented as part of a plan for "finally raising salaries across the board." Maybe compensation will be bumped up because of merit, but it will be bumped up for everyone regardless: Mr. Obama called current teacher salaries "morally unacceptable." He believes the problem with American education is that the schools haven't been given "the resources and the support" they need. He plans to plow "billions of new dollars into the teaching profession."

While there are certainly areas in which teachers are underpaid across the board, the much bigger problem in this country is how teachers are paid.  For more on this topic, see my slides at:

I'm adamantly opposed to paying teachers more if the extra money is simply poured into the current broken system, in which there's lockstep pay, with everything driven by seniority.  As Newark proves (the highest-paid teachers in the country, at $77,000/year on average), this does not result in higher teacher quality.  But, you will find no greater champion of higher teacher pay than me if it's accompanied by a sensible compensation system that attracts and rewards (both financially and in other ways) top performers.

Does Obama really think that across the board teacher pay increases will move the needle one iota on overall student achievement or closing the achievement gap (I have seen no evidence to support this, and there are tons of case studies to the contrary), or is he just saying what he felt he had to say in front of that audience?  I'm assuming the latter: I can more easily forgive pandering (after all, the NEA is enormously powerful and he's a politician!) than being so ill-informed on such an important issue.
2) I think Marcus's analysis is more balanced.  She points out the pandering:
Barack Obama has the teachers cheering. The National Education Association is meeting here, and Obama-- like the Democratic candidates who have spoken before him -- is telling the crowd everything it wants to hear.

He's "committed to fixing and improving our public schools instead of abandoning them and passing out vouchers." Washington "left common sense behind when they passed No Child Left Behind." Teacher pay must be raised "across the board."

And his silence on accountability and removing ineffective teachers:
Last year, in "The Audacity of Hope," Obama endorsed higher pay for teachers, with "just one catch" -- they "need to become more accountable for their performance -- and school districts need to have greater ability to get rid of ineffective teachers." Today, the talk is all pay, little catch, though the Obama campaign promises more details later.
And his shift on NCLB:

Or compare and contrast Obama in October 2005 and Obama now on No Child Left Behind.

"It may not be popular to say in Democratic circles, but there were good elements to this bill -- its emphasis on the achievement gap, raising standards and accountability," Obama said then. "Yes, it's a moral outrage that this administration hasn't come through with the funding. . . . But to wage war against the entire law for that reason is not an education policy, and Democrats need to realize that."

Obama today acknowledges that "high standards and accountability, in the abstract, are right," then launches into the standard attack he once decried.

"Don't tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend too much of the year preparing him to fill in a few bubbles on a standardized test," he says.

Yet she also rightly credits him for the courage it took to talk about merit pay.  While this seems like the most benign, obvious step to reformers like us, there's still enormous resistance to it within the longshoreman's union (ooops, I mean the teachers union).  Listen to this nonsense:
But for the teachers, Obama's words are fingernails on a chalkboard. They fall silent, except for scattered boos, as he mentions a modest new program in Minnesota.

"If you look between the lines on the answer, it wouldn't be the answer we were looking for," says Rhonda Wesolowski, president of New Hampshire's NEA affiliate. "He's going to have to come a long way off of that position with us," says California Teachers Association Vice President Dean Vogel.

And those were the polite ones, who were otherwise impressed with Obama. "I can't imagine if he were informed he would come before 10,000 people and say what he said," says New Jersey Education Association President Joyce Powell.

So, kudos to Obama for being willing to talk about merit pay, but he could have done so much more.  Here are two concrete examples of where I think he could have established more credibility as a genuine education reformer, without meaningfully antagonizing the NEA:
  • On the topic of spending, why couldn't he have at least said something like, "We need to spend more money, but we also need to spend it smarter because more money in the absence of meaningful reform isn't likely to have the maximum benefit for children."?  He wouldn't have even had to say what he meant by "meaningful reform"!
  • On NCLB, why couldn't he have said something like: "NCLB needs to be improved and funded properly, but I applaud the fact that it's played a critical role in focusing our nation's attention of the unacceptable achievement gap."?
I agree with Marcus's comparison to the others, though I find it hard to get excited about Obama being slightly less lame than the others:
Still, Obama may be what passes for brave among a fainthearted bunch. Of all the Democratic candidates who came here to pay homage to the NEA -- the sole Republican was former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee-- Obama was the only one to deviate significantly from the union line.

Not Hillary Clinton, who tangled with the Arkansas teachers union when she oversaw education reforms that included mandatory testing for new teachers.

Not John Edwards, who bemoans the "two public school systems in America -- one for the wealthy, one for everybody else," but isn't willing to acknowledge how No Child could help bridge that gap.

Not Chris Dodd, who issued a press release zinging merit pay.

Big kudos to Marcus for highlighting the great ideas being proposed by Democrats:

There are plenty of good ideas for a Democratic candidate who doesn't mind incurring the NEA's wrath.

The Democratic-oriented Hamilton Project has proposed assessing teachers after their first two years in the classroom and weeding out those at the bottom.

Strong American Schools, a nonpartisan group that has launched a $60 million effort to bring education issues to the forefront in the 2008 campaign, is pushing more rigorous education standards, more time in school for students and higher pay for better-performing teachers.

The Education Trust and the Aspen Institute have thoughtful proposals to improve No Child Left Behind, not gut it.

And the biggest kudos of all for this conclusion:

But so far, anyway, the Democrats who would be president are happy to propose more spending on education but are reluctant to impose any demands in return -- in other words, they are happy to sound like the same old Democratic Party, permissive and beholden.

Yes, teachers are an important Democratic constituency, but aren't parents Democratic voters, too -- parents who might welcome a message about accountability and expectations? If, that is, one of the candidates were willing to deliver it.

In summary, while this speech could have been so much more, a) the other Democrats were worse; b) when he's not in front of the NEA, he supports charter schools, accountability and removing ineffective teachers and, even in front of the NEA, he is now publicly out there in favor of merit pay.  Yes, these are baby steps, but they are important first steps for a Democrat and, as Confucius rightly said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step"; and c) call me naive, but I still think there's a good chance that Obama will take bolder steps on education in the future.  He clearly understands this issue -- he saw the terrible failures of Chicago's inner-city schools and the resulting devastation up close for many years as a community activist -- and cares a lot about it.
I certainly appreciate the awful dilemma he faces: I think he gets the joke and understands how tepid his "reform" plans are today, but it's not reasonable to expect him to commit political suicide.  The onus is on us to change the political dynamics in the Democratic Party so that it's not political suicide to say and do the right thing.
Has his speech made me question my support for him?  Yes, it caused me to go back and reread my original email on why I support him (, in which I wrote:

I am convinced that he is the real deal.  Why?  I think he:


1)           Is highly intelligent;


2)           Is a good listener and thinker and makes good decisions (which is not the same as being smart; see below);


3)           Has a fundamental decency and empathy;


4)           Has high integrity and is honest (with others and, more importantly, with himself);


5)           Quickly admits his mistakes and fixes them;


6)           Is not beholden to anyone;


7)           Has the courage to say and do what he thinks is right;


8)           Is, at his core, a moderate;


9)           Tries his best to bring people together and appeal to common interests (and is very good at this);


10)      Understands the enormous challenges facing our nation; and


11)      Has a sound approach to thinking about these problems (although admittedly he's been light on the specifics).

His speech has provided some disconfirming evidence regarding 6) and 7), which is something I'm monitoring closely, but I continue to supprt Obama because I still agree with him on most other issues.  (Despite my passion for education reform, I'm not a single-issue guy -- if I were, I'd be a Republican!)  I like the way he thinks and his non-divisive style, I think he offers the best hope to rebuild the tattered relationship between the U.S. and nearly every other country in the world and, most importantly, I think he's the most electable Democrat in the general election

Obama's School Uniform
July 9, 2007; Page A14

In March Barack Obama declared that his "main opponent in this race isn't other candidates -- it's cynicism." It's remarkable, though, how cynical his candidacy for the Democratic Presidential nomination has already become. The conflict between appearance and reality was distilled to its essence in a speech delivered on Thursday before the National Education Association's annual convention.


From Barack Obama, Two Dangerous Words

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, July 11, 2007; A15

PHILADELPHIA -- Barack Obama has the teachers cheering. The National Education Association is meeting here, and Obama-- like the Democratic candidates who have spoken before him -- is telling the crowd everything it wants to hear.


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